Ashley Abroad

Livin' in and lovin' Taipei since 2011

Spring in Taipei

Spring has sprung!

L and I drove up Yangming Mountain this past weekend where we thought we’d like to bathe in some hot springs, but it was too hot. So we decided to just enjoy the scenery instead.  The cherry blossoms are in bloom now, so it was hard to find parking at the spot we usually hike. Tons of people go to the mountain in sakura season.


Sakura blossoms in the park

From within the small but immaculately landscaped park that we ended up taking a walk in, you could see the summit of Yangming Mountain. There’s a large fumarole up there, and it constantly emits large clouds of geothermal steam. A dramatic backdrop for the cute blossoms everywhere.


Immaculate landscaping

For lunch, we found ourselves at a super local eatery at the edge of the park. I decided to have rice noodle soup with taro (grown on the mountain) which was listed as vegetarian on the sign. L had some rice with stewed pork belly. We had like six different side dishes, which were mostly veggies, and on the oily side, but they all tasted good.


Japan: How Can You Guys Still Be So Sexist?

I’m not exactly sure how to talk about this topic without offending anyone, but I’ll do my best. Hopefully it will make sense and not come off as rambling. It probably will, though. You’ve been warned. Also just want to give a heads up that the subject matter I’ll be talking about is a little risqúe. You’ve been double-warned.

I’ve had Japan on the brain lately. Also, I just came back from Okinawa 4 days ago (first and only trip to Japan). It was absolutely wonderful, the weather was perfect, the sea was gorgeous, the food was amazing, and the people – true to their worldwide reputation – were unfailingly polite, courteous and kind. Besides my recent travels to the actual country itself, I’ve recently resumed teaching at a Taipei branch office of a major Japanese company (where the student herself is Taiwanese but speaks fluent Japanese at work). Then, at this stage I’ve accumulated several years worth of teaching Japanese students English here in Taiwan, a wide range of ages, from children to adults, both men and women.

Most of my students were and are salarymen. I might add, that to my surprise lot of them were really open and candid with me. I may have been more of a therapist than a teacher on more than one occasion. Some, true to our western cultural stereotype, were more reserved. Once, a pint-sized CEO bellowed at me during a class “Americans have no morals!” I hadn’t done anything to provoke him, maybe it was just a bad day. Maybe he was going through culture shock in Taiwan and having periodic outbursts. Hard to imagine since he had shared that he was enjoying more perks in Taiwan than back home, things like a personal chauffeur. Who knows. With my Japanese students, as with Taiwanese, I’ve had hours of conversation across a wide range of topics. Cumulatively, all of these experiences, taken together, have led me to ponder deeply on some of the phenomenons of Japanese culture. I can’t help myself, I was a Cultural Anthropology major and I am a huge culture nerd.

So, that Taiwanese student who works at the Japanese company I’ve recently resumed teaching English at just told me that she is not afraid to argue with her Japanese boss, but when doing so will use English. My first thought? “You are awesome.” I am not a fan of strict hierarchies in the workplace, everyone should be open to critiques. That’s my opinion. Western workplace M.O. is open communication. Nobody can opt out. If your seniority makes you untouchable, that’s a really inflexible work environment. In other words, it would be a breeding ground for resentment amongst employees toward senior staff. In Asia, strangely, it doesn’t usually play out that way. Out here people tend to embrace whatever level they’re own and conduct themselves accordingly. If you’re ‘underneath’ someone, you embrace that role and serve them to the best of your ability. It results in a functional system that as well as it works, baffles me. I guess western people just don’t like hierarchies, and we can only serve others so much before we start to hate their guts.

Anyways, according to the student, Japanese language constrains such things as arguing with one’s boss if you are in the subservient role.  Not speaking a word of Japanese myself, beyond konnichiwa and oishi, I was both disturbed and intrigued. I’d heard from other (Japanese) students of mine in the past that in Japan one must adhere to the spoken style of Japanese deemed appropriate for his or her status in relation to others (especially in a professional setting) lest they appear inept or idiotic. Also, that there are gender-specific spoken Japanese styles for both men and women, with different grammar forms and vocabulary. Still I didn’t realize that the entire language had been engineered in order to guide behaviors. Scary and fascinating.

I realize I may sound like I’m attacking Japanese culture. But that’s not so much my intention. Rather, I’m just looking in from an outside perspective, and using the little bits I’ve learned to make a critique. I mean, I can’t really help but feeling like a lot of the practices that are so ingrained in their mode of thinking are inhibitive of progress, especially for women. Not saying my home country of the USA is any beacon of righteousness or anything, either. It’s not. There is no such thing as a perfect culture. Moreover, the whole world is a hot mess right now. But Japan has been sexist for way too long and everyone has just kind of let them be that way. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that 1. They’re rather homogenous, and 2. They’re remarkably insular as a social group. Korea’s no different, really. Taiwan is much more of an open-minded society when it comes to foreigners (not just any foreigners, maybe only white foreigners and Japanese). Still Japan is renowned for it’s exclusion of foreigners.

The thing that grinds my gears most of all about the Japanese mind (a term one of my Japanese students used to refer to their thinking, he acknowledges himself that their values are stringent, inflexible and difficult to change) is the attitude toward women. Women in Japan, as a general rule, do not work after they marry. And that’s not all, married women working in Japan is something that is considered ridiculous, even humorous. Seriously. Ambitious women who want a career after they tie the knot are fodder for comedy. Say what? How can this be so in 2016? Facepalm. Japan, get it together. You can’t go on like this..

Let’s talk about the business culture in Japanese society. Aside from attending regularly scheduled work in the office, most Japanese salarymen engage in after-hours business, too. The place wherein which they go in order to do this are venues that in English are known as hostess bars. These exist in Taiwan too, on Linsen North Road and vicinity, which may well be the most notorious area in the city. Many of them cater to Japanese customers, but Taiwanese men go as well. Anyway, these places employ women for the purpose of entertaining men, usually after work and into the late hours. From what I understand, most of the girls are young and all dolled up in scantily-clad ensembles. They’re kind of like on-site escorts.

Although they don’t usually have actual sex with customers, they conduct themselves as the epitome of servility; pouring drinks, laughing at bad jokes, putting up with creepy/lecherous bullshit. Trying to make them feel like they are the bees knees. In Taipei, hostess bars almost always have a concierge-type guy, who stands on the sidewalk behind a little kiosk that’s pretty discreet and looks like a parking valet stand with a Hennessy or Johnny Walker ad on it. That guy lets customers into the building, another guy leads them to a room, and after that the girls will be brought in, dressed to the 9’s, and told to stand in a row for the customers to assess. The guys choose their companions for the evening from the selection and the others are sent away.

I can’t imagine how depressing it would be to have to endure the shame of trying to make yourself look as alluring and provocative as possible, only to be sent away by (often) haggard, lecherous, way-too-old-for-you businessmen and/or gangsters. Not that it would be much better to be chosen to hang out with them. I feel bad for all of the girls who work there, and for good reason as there is a high suicide rate among girls in that line of work. Another fun fact: this job allows them to earn more than they would working in a white collar office job (who needs hopes and dreams when you can objectify yourself for a greater reward?) The benefits only go so far, though. Eventually you’ll sink into hopelessness and despair.

So yeah, IMHO, hostess bars are quite simply a female-objectifying hell. And I think many Japanese and Taiwanese people would agree. Regardless of the higher wages hostesses earn as opposed to office workers, it’s not acceptable to work as one and you will face social ostracization. Still, visiting such venues is a major part of business for (I think it’s safe to say most) Japanese salarymen, both married and unmarried. I think their wives know, too. It’s just something those poor women tolerate as par for the course. In addition to Taiwan, there are hostess bars in China and HK, as well. Probably all over Asia. But Japan is the stronghold of the hostess bar culture. My Japanese students have told me that their bosses and senior managers expect them to go these places, something they’re not always willing to do yet can’t refuse. It is considered a responsibility. Often times, such outings can be charged to the company expense account.

As a woman, learning about how so much important biz in Asia is done in hostess bars has made me uneasy for a multitude of reasons. (A) It’s one of the obvious reasons why women are so marginalized professionally in Japanese culture; nobody is going to invite a female colleague to join the group of guys going to the hostess place; thus, they’re excluded from important business deals and forming important relationships with colleagues and clients. Hostess bars facilitate male bonding. (B) Men who visit these places will inevitably wind up viewing women as servile beings; from what I can see already one of the unfortunate facts about Japanese culture. Once again, I don’t mean to talk shit. A lot of American guys like strippers, but as far as I know only gangsters do biz at the strip joint, not white collar company employees. As far as I know.

My Taiwanese husband has heard me out time and again as I’ve cursed a blue streak about how the aforementioned cultural setup makes it impossible for women to progress in Japanese culture. Even though hostess bars exist in Taiwan and are frequented by certain Tw businessmen, it’s not mainstream like it is in Japan. It’s borderline scandalous here. In Japan it seems like people just think of hostess bars as a normal, acceptable part of professional culture.

I was really on the rampage one day after a Japanese student (salaryman who visits hostess bars on the reg) innocently asked (if you can buy the idea that someone who does such things could maintain a grain of innocence) if women in America work after marriage. I told him that they almost always do. I restrained myself from shouting about how this is 2016 and he and his country need to snap the eff out of it and liberate their poor women from the tireless, misogynistic mindset that keeps them down. But that would have just made me look crazy. He proceeded to tell me that he found it a surprise that American wives would work – “Isn’t America a country with high salaries?” He asked.

He was implying that he thought men made enough money so that women wouldn’t have to work indicating that he was mentally way past any attempt I could make to ground him in reason. The concept of women having career goals and aspirations was simply beyond him. Undoubtedly someone will stumble across my blog eventually  and wonder why in the heck would I continue to teach such people English, and perhaps also, why wouldn’t you try to talk some sense into him? Well, first of all, I’ve tried to talk sense into various Asian males over the years since I’ve lived in Taiwan, and with the exception of my husband those efforts were pretty useless. I’m not giving up, I just try to choose my battles carefully because it takes a lot of energy. If they’re old they don’t want to listen. If they’re young, they might listen, but they don’t change. So what I’m choosing to do right now is just hope that misogynistic norms in Asian culture start to fade out. Japan is the worst when it comes to that stuff. Still, there’s still a lot of work to do right here in Taiwan.

Livin’ la vida freelance

Nowadays I like to consider myself an English-language freelance extraordinaire. But back when I first came to Taiwan in 2010, in my full-on newbie naïveté and kicked off my career as a cram school teacher, I was bad, maybe even awful. Despite having attended a 60-hour TESOL course to prepare myself, it was still that way.  And it wasn’t one of those “you’re just being too hard on yourself” situations. I was really and truly shitty. I’m much better now, thank god.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am not a teacher of children. I have neither the patience, the fortitude, nor the tolerance. I don’t like to shout, but then I also struggle to keep my cool in the presence of screaming rugrats who climb all over the place, disobey my orders and ignore whatever lesson I’m trying to teach. You might say, “just lighten up and play some games.” Except there were expectations from the boss, who in turn was receiving pressure from parents (customers) about the content and material of  said lessons. Furthermore, this job was in a rural area and the pressure to achieve was even greater than that in the city. City kids are often much more laid back because they have more opportunities at their doorstep, but privileged (as those kids were) kids in the Taiwanese rural areas have shown me that they can be stubborn as hell. I think they’re regularly getting their asses whooped by their parents because they hope they’ll stay motivated and competitive.

Whatever the fuck. Anyway, that school had all the lessons streamed to a large screen in the lobby that was divided into squares that offered a glimpse into each classroom . Parents and staff could watch what was going on at any given time. A casual observer of my classroom on a semi-regular basis could readily deduce that I did not have ‘control’ of the students most of the time, which would probably warrant some follow-up viewing, by concerned parents, which would then probably and unfortunately confirm their suspicions. Remember, I sucked.  First of all, I am not a disciplinarian. Second of all, even if I had tried to discipline those kids, there were limits on what was allowed. No sending kids out of the classroom, for example. And so it was.

The whole ‘kids out of hand thing’ was unique to foreign teachers, like me. Another coworker of mine had a strategy wherein which he would reward his kids with pizza if they did well, and revoke his promises of rewards if they misbehaved. Frankly I couldn’t be bothered with that. It seemed like too much trouble. So I continued to plod onward in my own meek and mediocre way. If a Chinese teacher strolled into the class, the students unfailingly straightened right up. Why? Well, he or she could potentially call their parents, or worse . Things that I couldn’t do and they knew it, I had no knowledge of Chinese.

Regarding the Chinese teachers’ military-seageant-esque demeanor that made the kids fall right into line in an instant, well, it was something to behold. Had I had teachers like that back in my student days I cannot imagine they’d have gotten the same response. They would have been loathed. American kids are smart asses, for one thing. Chinese kids have a lot of respect for authority, well, Chinese-speaking authority. Predicaments like my constant struggle to get the kids on task, therefore, didn’t garner much sympathy from these teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they scoffed at teachers like me. After all, our wages were more than double theirs. So they usually offered me vague tips like, “Maybe you can be more strict,” but I just didn’t see the point. I’d already given up. I didn’t care anymore.

Fast-forward 5 years and I’m still in Taiwan. Different city, different jobs, married. A lot’s happened. I’m not at the mercy of some stressed-out boss’s convoluted expectations, nor do I have to work alongside Chinese teachers receiving an inferior wage for doing the same work (and no doubt resenting me for it). Chinese teachers in my current job teach their native language to foreigners (and I’m among their students).  Perhaps best of all, I don’t have to teach kids now.

The switch-over to teaching adults was the best choice I ever made. Adult students are self-motivated. They’re paying, after all. Even when they’re not paying, it’s just a whole hell of a lot more interesting for me to talk to an adult than it is to talk to a kid. Okay, okay, that’s just my opinion. But when you’re teaching someone a language, what do you need to do most? I won’t even say it. Pretty often, Taiwanese English students haven’t talked in their previous English classes, the education here is extremely traditional and teacher-centered. So one of their main goals is often that they would like to “talk more” or “talk with foreigners.”

I’m usually more than happy to do that. And even though I don’t find myself universally well-received everywhere I go, I’ve gained a lot of experience and met a lot more different kinds of Taiwanese, as well as Japanese, Brazilian, Argentine, etc. kinds of students/people. Of these,  I’ve had several students stick with me for a few years, and that’s done a ton to boost up my confidence. Not to mention, I’ve been able to set up some private classes on my own after getting a work permit, and to diversify the kinds of jobs I do. I don’t just do plain-old conventional teaching anymore. I do editing, help students prepare to apply to overseas universities, on-site Business English, and yes- even the occasional kid’s class. But I always, always emphasize it is not my forté.

A new (furry) member of the family

My husband, L, and I had been talking over getting a dog for ages. And this past Saturday afternoon, after stopping into a pet shop “just to have a look”, we stumbled across what would become our furchild.

We didn’t have the intention of buying on the spot. But once we saw her, it was love at first sight. On the topmost tier of a 4-story cluster of metal cages, a tiny little fox-colored pomeranian was eyeing us. The lǎobǎn, noting our interest, promptly opened the cage door and handed her to my husband. Upon gazing into her tiny face and adorable little button eyes, he was at once smitten.
We jumped a little when she told us the price, yet my husband quickly regained his composure and said to me in English, “Shit, how can you say no? Look! Just look, It’s so cute. I want it.”

As it had originally been my idea to get a dog in the first place, I wasn’t about to try and stop him. So, I endorsed the decision right away, giddily anticipating life with our new pet. And then, I held her for myself for the first time and the rest was history. We were  putty in this pup’s hands, er paws, that is.

Currently we’re coming into day 3, with Mei-Mei (‘little sister’ in Chinese, although her name is Mochi) at the homestead. And by homestead, I mean shoebox in the sky (such is the Asiatic urban life). She’s adapting pretty well thus far and as for me, I’m realizing that a furry friend was everything I never knew I always wanted.


Mochi and L, cuddled up. I swear she is made out of ‘blanket’, she is so soft and poofy.


Mochi and me. Hey, that rhymes. She’s a bit bashful when it comes to the camera. Look how tiny! Even though she looks like a yapper, she’s surprisingly chill.







Homemade Chinese Food

Source: Homemade Chinese Food

Homemade Chinese Food

Consider the old adage ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ Switch out ‘man’ for ‘people’ and now it rings even truer. Moreover, that may or may not be one of the routes to my everlasting devotion. Still, it sure is nice when somebody’s doing the cooking and better yet, enjoying the whole process of what I regard as an arduous task.

Don’t get me wrong, I love eating, as you may have already guessed. Who doesn’t? But cooking? I’m more of an assemble-er. The mood rarely strikes wherein which I am overcome by the urge to cook, even though I’ll obsess over a good dish as much as the next person.

Enter, my better half. In this area he is very much deserving of this title. His domestic aptitude doesn’t stop there, either. It’s a wonder he’s developed these proclivities in the midst of a rather traditional gender role-enforcing society. Nevertheless, he’s been into the culinary arts since he was too short to reach a countertop, following his mother around the kitchen.

By junior high, he was making dishes for his whole family and even critiquing his mother’s recipes (chef’s are opinionated). In addition to developing a repertoire of standard Taiwanese fare with his own spin, he has also integrated a lot of western, Thai and even Indian ingredients into his cooking. Whenever he tastes something new that he likes, he wants to try cooking it himself.

Let’s say, he’s a culinary explorer. And also, let’s say I am an ever grateful recipient-slash-dishwasher. Enough talk, on to the photos. They speak for themselves, methinks.


New Year, New Tattoo :-)

Well, it sure has been a while since I’ve checked in on this little blog of mine. What have I been up to? Well, things got pretty busy. I was taking on all of the work I could muster, what with my four jobs plus private classes. That and well, I suppose I just got diverted out of bloglandia. I was using my free time to really ramp up my running, then my mom came to visit and we were touring her around, then it was the holidays. Not that Christmas is anything to write home (or write here?) about. It was barely a blip on the radar. We just made it into a dinner date night (after work!)

New Year’s (the one everyone celebrates) was more of a splash in our lives than Christmas. In fact, I used ringing in the new year as an excuse/reason to get a tattoo. Why now, in my 30s? Well, I had been hankering for one for years, I just needed a design I loved and an artist I could trust. Its strange that I somehow lived in Portland, Oregon during my formative years and got out of that place ink-free. Yet, I did even though it seemed like half the population of my age group had full sleeves. Here in Taiwan, tattoo shops and tattooed people are not nearly as common and/or celebrated, so I guess it’s kind of an emerging trend. Most of the Taiwanese people I’ve talked to are open-minded about them though. Formosa is a fairly progressive place.

Here’s what it looks like. This photo is a little more than necessary (multiple angles and all). It was taken by the artist. Originally the color was pink, but I am not a pink person, so I had him change it to blue. The outline and fill were all done in one session, about 6.5 hours. I watched almost four movies. Talk about antsy! But in the end, well worth it.



By the way, my artist was Victor at VJ Tattoo in Gongguan. Here is a link to his Facebook. He is incredibly sanitary and meticulous.  He puts a great deal of time and effort into creating designs for his clients. I literally can’t say enough good things about him, except go here if you would like to get tattooed in Taiwan. His work is always amazing. Avoid those sketchy alleyway parlors in Ximending at all costs!



Foreigner-friendly hair in Taipei & Chinese Valentine’s Day!

I had my hair cut and colored a couple days ago and sheesh, it’d been a long time coming. I was practically beginning to have fever dreams of my mother scolding me to cut off my haggard looking split ends, as she always reminded me back home to get regular trims. It’s easy to get lazy about upkeep when your M.O. is low-maintenance. Plus, I longed for long hair. I had been under the misguided impression for some time that I could grow myself a shimmering, glossy, mane, like a Taiwanese girl. This went way too far, unchecked. Oh my.

Finally, in the anticipation of my soon-to-begin Fall semester teaching high school English, I decided to resuscitate that er, situation. I thought it might lift my spirits and make me feel renewed. So I started sniffing around the interwebs to find a foreigner-friendly stylist. ‘Twasn’t long before I came across the name Eddie Tham. I read about him on several different blogs, two written by people I know. One of those girls used to travel up to Taipei from Nantou for his services!

After a bit more sniffing, I confirmed with at least two more foreign girls in Taipei right now, that Eddie is indeed the best. So I gave him a call. Lucky me, I was able to get an appointment that very same day. At the moment I showed up to Pica (isn’t that the compulsion to eat non-food items like clay and styrofoam?) Salon on Zhongxiao East Road, I was immediately escorted to a chair. Immediate points! I hate waiting! Eddie communicates flawlessly in English. At first I thought his accent was Singaporean, but found out later that he’s actually from Malaysia. He is Chinese Malaysian, actually. But the important part is this: he trained for over 10 years in London and has a lot of experience dealing with western hair types.

Because he has a lot of experience, he works really fast while still doing a good job. He assessed my situation, trimmed off my frizz, decided on and executed a great cut and mixed up my highlights (color) in a jiffy. Normally, highlights and a cut takes 3-4 hours (both here and in the states) in my previous experience. But Eddie was able to complete everything in just 2 hours. Because my Chinese is pretty bad, I was also happy to be able to chat with him to pass the time. They even have recent English-language magazines. He showed me an article about solo weddings in Japan (because the women are sick of being oppressed housewives). All in all, a good stylist and a cool dude.

Because he’s good and probably the best bet for foreigners looking to get coiffed and colored in Taipei, well, all of Taiwan, his services don’t run cheap. I paid $5,000 for the whole shebang. But many Taiwanese women spend even more than that. I have a friend who spends $50,000 about once a year to get an elaborate hair treatment. Besides, that’s about on par with the prices people pay at salons back in the states, good ones anyway. For more details about pricing, visit Eddie’s website. There, you’ll find his price list for various services as well as a gallery with pictures of some of his clients.


Judging from this montage, you’d think I also got a spray tan. It’s just the different lighting. What a difference, huh? I’m definitely happy with the results. Address: Picahair Salon 106‎ Taipei City‎ Da-an District 3F, No. 76 Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4 MRT Zhongxiao Fuxing: Exit 3 Chinese Address: 畢卡髮藝 忠孝東路四段76號3樓之4 MRT忠孝復興站(3號出口)

That day was also Qīxì Jié (七夕節) aka ‘Double Sevens Festival’/’Chinese Valentine’s Day’, this holiday falls on the 7th day of the 7th Chinese Lunar month. This year it was August 20th on the Gregorian. As with February 14th in the west, people still go to work, it’s just a special day for couples. For the single ladies and lads, it’s off to the temple to pray! Pray for what? To meet the perfect romantic match, of course. Before you pass judgement and proclaim this behavior avoidant, remember that Taiwan is a highly traditional/superstitious society. Hence, who are we as outsiders to say this doesn’t work? You’d think, actually, that with all of the single people rolling up to temples on this day, that they sort of become venues for impromptu singles mixers. Not. Taiwanese people don’t usually meet significant others at random. Everyone gets introduced, by either mutual friends or a family member. Foreigner/Taiwanese couples are an exception.

On Qīxì Jié, the hubs and I went out for a dinner at a local steakhouse. I let him choose since he almost always lets me choose the restaurants we eat at. The place we went, Piecettes, is located in Ximending. We live in the adjacent Zhongzheng District, but they have locations elsewhere. It’s a chain. It was pretty crowded when we went. I should tell you, in Taipei it’s not easy to find a peaceful or romantic dining spot in this city. Well, especially in Ximending. Despite being crowded, the atmosphere was pretty cozy. There isn’t much of a gap between tables, either. Commonplace around here.

How would I describe the food at Piecettes? Well, let’s call it ‘Taiwanese interpretive western.’ A schmancy way of saying inauthentic. I won’t go as far as calling it “bad”, but it’s not exactly high brow cuisine. At least it’s not microwaved! Compared to other “western food” around here, it actually deserves to be called “good.” I wouldn’t advise eating here if you’re fresh off the boat from a western country, though. Wait a few months and you’ll like it better. This being Asia, western food is not their forté. Piecettes is operated by the same parent company that runs the ubiquitous and wildly popular local chain Tasty. Thus, service here is in a similar style – efficient and attentive.In terms of price, I’d call it mid-range. It’s about $169-199 for pasta dishes, while main courses fall between $249 and $349. For an additional $200 you can make your meal a set, with various options for an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert/drink. The set is the way to go. Desserts are good. Crème brûlée was cracking. Ice cream ain’t a bad choice either.

'Taiwanese Interpretive Western' at Piecettes. This is the sea bass. Pardon the shadows. I don't excel at food photography.

Taiwanese Interpretive Western food at Piecettes. This is the sea bass. Pardon the shadows, I don’t excel at food photography.  Address: No. 76-1, Kunming St., Wanhua Dist, Taipei, Taiwan. Address in Chinese: 小銅板牛排 Piecettes 萬華區昆明街76-1號


After recently moving and settling into a newer and higher-priced abode, my husband has decided to take a one month break from work. I’m an American, so naturally I’m all “That’s okay! It’s summer!” But then, there is the issue of making our rent. Actually it’s not an issue, we can manage, since we split it 2 ways evenly and he’s saved up some money. But in Taiwan, people tend to be very frugal about spending, so a cheap apartment by western standards is far too expensive. If my husband had his way, we’d be living with his parents and paying nothing. However, there is a little thing called boundaries that I like to maintain. Fortunately, he understands.

But after a couple of years living in a very tiny and cheap apartment I began to yearn for more space and a more comfy atmosphere. I began to scour the Chinese-language classifieds on the daily and found lots of appealing places for about the same price of my old studio back in Portland, Oregon. Only many of these places exceeded the comfort level of said studio by a lot. So, once again I began the process of urging my husband to relocate.

The good thing about being married to a Taiwanese local who grew up in the city where we live and subsequently knows it like the back of his hand, is that I won’t get lured into a shady neighborhood by a “good deal.” Case in point, one day I stumbled across a bounty of luxurious looking places for not much more than our current rent in Zhongshan District, a more busy district across town. At that time, and still now, we were living in Zhongzheng District, which is kind of a university district. Anyway, for NT$17,000 we could live in a trendy looking modern apartment with a kitchen and a sleeping loft, plus a jacuzzi tub! I was all over it like white on rice.

The husband, however, was nonplussed. “Show me the address,” he said.

Eagerly, I shoved my Macbook in his face, full of anticipation. I couldn’t believe my savviness and now we were going to live in a really sweet place! Not to mention that me, a foreigner, had managed to find some really cool things in the Chinese-language classifieds.

“Do you know where this is?” My husband asked me. His tone remained the same. Complete and total lack of enthusiasm.

“Yeah, it looks nice,” he continued.

“But this is on the Linsen Bei (north) Road. That’s where all the prostitutes are and the mafia hangs out.”

“Oh.” I replied, downcast. I most definitely do not want to be living there.

Yeah, its true that Taiwanese mafia don’t mess with people who are not in the mafia themselves. Unless you’re a guy trying to steal one of their girlfriends, or girls within the group at a nightclub (in which case be prepared to get jumped by a group and have glass bottles broken over your head). Still, knowing that this area is their stronghold, I wouldn’t want to make the decision to move there. At least in Zhongzheng, we have peace and quiet. Zhongshan is also renowned as the “24 hour business district.” That means that Taiwanese and Japanese businessmen frequent the area after hours to visit “jiu dians” where female hosts poor them whisky and they conduct business deals.

I just don’t want to have those things going on in my midst. Not to mention that the habits and behaviors of people who like to hang out in an area like that would probably disrupt my peace of mind. I’m a runner and I don’t want to have to live in a building full of cigarette smoke. Mafia guys make a lot of money and feel entitled to act however they want. Ie; smoking in non-smoking restaurants, chewing bin lang and not giving a F*** what anyone thinks. Moreover, I like to sleep early and I don’t want a lot of noise pollution cramping my style. I would morph into a montrous bitch-face from hell. Yeah, beauty (and brain) sleep is essential.

Finally, seeing prostitutes would just be depressing. I wouldn’t want to have to encounter them regularly. I can’t stop them from doing what they do but I don’t want to see it or know about it. Add the lecherous businessman into the mix and it’s a recipe for me forcing my husband to endure aggressive feminist rants on the regular. It would affect our quality of life.

So, in the end with a bit of perseverance, I found another hot item. And by hot item, I mean to say desirable apartment in a decent location. This time, it was a mere 0.8 km’s down the road from our current spot. After showing my husband the ad, we made an appointment to view it on the double.

The building was new! The floors gleamed! It contained appliances that I haven’t had in my life for too long — a washer/dryer (no more arduous hanging-up work!), a sink outside of the bathroom that could produce hot water, a shower with back-massaging gizmos. In sum, paradise. My husband was equally enamored. We told the landlord we wanted to snap it up.

I should mention that although neither one of us has any regrets (after living here for two months now), some important details in the ad were not entirely accurate. First of all, there is a monthly ‘building fee.’ In the ad, it was stated that the fee was NT$750, super cheap. In reality, it’s $1200/month. My husband went to meet the landlord alone on a different day to sign the contract and he called me to relate this bit of news. It came as a bit of a shocker. We were pushing our budget.

The landlord speaks no English and is a woman. So my husband wasn’t worried about saying anything in front of her in English, she can’t understand. Anyway, I could detect by his voice that he was sweating and having second thoughts, yet also feeling pressured. I, too, contributed to the pressure further by urging him to go ahead and sign it anyway. After all, the price for what we could get was too good to pass up.

Do you know what the landlord said in order to explain the difference between the stated price in the ad (for the building fee) vs the one advertised? That her son made a mistake because she told him to write the ad. This may well be true, still its annoying as our original decision to go for it was based on the info in the ad. Her son lives upstairs in an apartment that she bought for him which is about 2x the size of ours. It turns out that my husband went to junior high with him, they’re the same age. I’m not sure whether he has a family or not. Anyway, he’s lucky to have such a generous mom.

Most of the other people in our building now own their apartments. People don’t really speak to one another, it’s a very mind-your-own-business kind of a place, which suits me perfectly as an extrovert with introverted tendencies. Moreover, I am not the only white person or foreigner here. There’s a French dude downstairs and a Japanese girl, too. I like that. Yay for diversity.

We have a security guard, which I originally thought was a good thing. We didn’t have one before in our old place. But sometimes the security guard is nosy and annoying. I’m not surprised as he is most likely retired from whatever he did as a career and doesn’t have much to do besides sit in his chair whenever he’s on duty. I mean, it’s good to know somebody is guarding the premises, but with our locked gate, plus locked front door, plus elevator that requires a key card, I hardly feel threatened.

In regards to his nosiness, he often asks where we are going. Or he’ll ask me where I am going. I don’t always feel inclined to report back to people on my whereabouts, thus, it’s mildly irksome. Sometimes I’m going to work, sometimes I’m running to the store and sometimes I came back immediately because I forgot something.

“You came back?!” He inquires. Shocked face.

“Um yeah. No worries.” I reply in Chinese.

“Why can’t he just do his job?” I’m thinking silently to myself. I can handle hello and goodbye, but beyond that I feel burdened. As an American who grew up in Connecticut I suppose I’m just not the friendly, folksy type. I’d say that I’m nice, but I don’t have tons of patience with strangers. For the most part, this demeanor has worked well for me in Taipei.

Back when I made the east to west coast transition in the states for college, it wasn’t that easy. Portland is aggressively friendly. It rubbed me the wrong way from the start, but eventually endeared me. I tried in vain to adapt to that culture, still I remained an east coast bitch at heart. My husband, on the other hand is one of the most tirelessly outgoing and positively friendly people one could ever hope to meet. He keeps me in check.

Xue Li of all trades

Let me first explain the title. “Xue Li” 雪莉 is my Chinese name. Normally its a transliteration of the western name Shelley, but it suits me just fine. I have my father in law to thank for it. Following months of agonizing over a good name to choose, he suggested it out of the blue. Well, if you could consider the moment after we handed him a list of potential choices for a name ‘out of the blue.’ I recall him putting on his double spectacles (diy bifocals!) and starting to read, when suddenly he scoffed and tossed the paper aside. “How about ‘Xue Li?'” he inquired. “That’s what you’re used to!”

The former was communicated in Chinese. Then, in broken English, he proclaimed “Ai-shay-li and Shay-li, same-same.” “Ai-shay-li” is what my Chinese family calls me in English. That’s how they pronounce Ashley. From that day forward, I’ve been Xue Li. But they don’t usually call me that. They still call me “Ai-shay-li.” Old habits die hard. Who calls me “Xue Li?” Well, the security guard in our new building and my husband’s boss. That’s about it. Otherwise I’m usually “Teacher” or “Ai-yi” (auntie). Other foreigners just call me by name, of course.

“Of all trades”

I’m no Jane, certainly no Jack. Still, I do many jobs. All of them English-related. Most of them teaching-related. At this moment in time I am the proud haver of (coining my own new verb here) 3 official jobs. I say “official jobs,” because they don’t constitute everything I do for work. I am sure I’ve mentioned this before in other posts, as I tend to mention it a lot. Let’s cut to the chase. This latest gig is a post at a Taipei language school, I won’t name drop. I will say that this school differs substantially from the others at which I’ve taught.

How does it differ? Well, first of all the classes are almost always in the evening, during the 下班時候 xiàbān shíhòu, after work. I usually teach during this time anyway since I prefer adult students. At this school, the dress code is more formal. Apparently the owner is an Aussie (Ozzy?). In his absence there is a woman doing the management. She is quite good, in both English and at management, not to mention she’s also just a nice lady. The school is only two years old and I’ve just met two of my coworkers. One is American and the other is Canadian. They’re both quite a bit older than me and male.

Since its summer time, I’m taking a break from teaching high school. Yes, despite my general avoidance of young students, I did take a job where I teach them. Actually I don’t mind teenagers. The students at the school where I am teaching (I’ll continue in the fall) are super bright and motivated. Even though I was forewarned that “some of the boys are naughty,” and in Chinglish, “you will angry.” I found them to be quite easy to manage. One of the reasons being, presumably, that they are (a) in a ‘language talent’ class and (b) they are students at a school for kids with high test scores (in other words, they’re smarter than average).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t prescribe to the notion that test scores are an adequate measure of intelligence. Still, when I encounter kids who attend schools for students of a so-called higher caliber according to these standards, they do strike me as more well-adjusted. Don’t worry, I’m not becoming biased. I think a lot of it has to do with the way they are perceived by their families and society as a result. For example, if you are a high school student at Taipei First Girl’s Senior High School or Jianguo Senior High School (the “best” public high schools for girls and boys, respectively), you will be looked upon with admiration when you ride the subway while wearing your uniform. Everybody will think you are smart and a good student.

On the other hand, if you are a high school student who attends private school, people will think that you probably aren’t very smart, but your family must have money. Since all of the high schools, elementary school and junior high schools in Taiwan have uniforms, these poor kids get assessed and judged wherever they go. Which goes without saying, if you are a student at a school that’s considered inferior, you have to go around with it emblazoned on your shirt like a badge of shame. So whether or not you think test scores equate with intelligence, how your school is perceived of by general public will almost certainly have a huge impact on one’s self-esteem in Taiwan.

The high school I teach at now is not in Taipei City proper,  its across the river in New Taipei City. New Taipei City, which was originally just a smattering of outlying smaller cities and towns making up the suburbs of Taipei, was proclaimed an official city in 2010. Now its the biggest city in Taiwan and surrounds Taipei City like a giant donut. The school where I teach is considered the best public school in New Taipei City and unlike the two best schools in Taipei City proper, its co-ed. Although NTC is bigger than TC by a lot, Taipei schools are still considered to be the best. In other words, the best schools in TC are regarded as the best schools in Taiwan.

But I’m taking a break from teaching high school now. Which brings me to the topic of some of the other jobs that I’m doing in the meantime. Oh yes, editing! Hopefully nobody is reading this, assessing my writing and thinking to themselves, “How in the heck is this amateur-writer-af girl qualified for academic editing?!” Well, let me tell you. In Taiwan, where people don’t speak English as a first language, but still frequently wish to study abroad, they need to write admissions essays.

When I get my hands on said essays, they’re often a mess of gobbledygook Chinglish. With some practice, however, I’ve grown accustomed to encountering similar kinds of mistakes in all of them. As a result, I can usually distill them into something readable before they’re submitted to schools. Lots of people I’ve edited for have been admitted to schools in both the UK and the USA. So I must be doing something right. Then, there’s the possibility that their credentials in other areas are adequate for the admissions department to give them a pass on their essay. Hm.

Next, there’s my original job in Taipei. Yet another language school. This language school, long established, has a good reputation among Japanese in Taiwan. It is also a popular place for foreigners to study Chinese. Having taught there for 5 years now, I am currently more part-time than ever, which is probably a good thing since their hourly wage stinks, for onsite teaching anyway. If you’re sent out to teach at a company of some sort, you will be paid more.

Sometimes offsite classes are really freaking far away and the additional pay just barely covers travel expenses plus a cup of coffee. Now that I’m thinking about it, I realize that most of the company classes I have taught for them in the past were Japanese companies in Taiwan, but usually consisted of Taiwanese students. Now I’ll name-drop: Itochu (they own Family Mart), Murata (3C components), YKK (of zipper fame), So-Net (a subsidiary of Sony), among others. Even though I have often felt a but gipped in the salary department, working for this school has allowed me to ‘cut my teeth’ teaching Business English. So for that, I’m thankful.

Finally, there’s my private students. Teaching privates in the open is one of best parts of having a work permit in this country. As you might expect, this kind of teaching is the most flexible. Although I prefer to have a consistent schedule, many of them are irregular or impromptu. Usually I meet my private students in a coffee shop and either just bring a notebook and a pen or some materials I find online. One of them involves going to an actual office, a job I got through people I know back in the states. Given a choice, outside of a language school, most private students don’t want to use a textbook. That’s just something students do when its imposed on them.


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